July 26, 2012

Team: Brazil

Age: 20

Event: Un-American Football

Position: Forward/Wing

Hometown: Santos, São Paulo

It was pretty much predestined. Neymar’s father is a former professional football player and his mother’s maiden name is Santos. So, of course, the São Paulo-based Santos FC—the club that developed international stars Clodoaldo, Elano and Robinho and introduced the world to the singular talent of Pelé—discovered Neymar da Silva Santos, Jr. at age 11.

European clubs first started taking an interest in the youngster as early as 2003, but Neymar stayed in the Santos youth academy until making his professional debut for the club in March 2009. He has had some fine moments for Brazil’s under-17 and under-19 squads, but his breakout year was 2010, when he scored 42 goals in 60 appearances for Santos. The man with the trademark mohawk is fast and nimble, and spins and feints with the best. One unfortunate trait is that he also faints rather more than one might wish for, but his wizardry with the ball at his feet goes a long way toward forgiveness.

As the 2010 World Cup approached, various Brazilian futebol eminences like Pelé and Romário lobbied national team coach Dunga, already under fire for his personnel choices and conservative football outlook, to add Neymar to the squad. A petition with 14,000 names circulated, but Dunga—whose nickname is really and truly the Portuguese name for Dopey in Snow White—was never one to bow to popular opinion. Neymar didn’t even make his stand-by list for South Africa.

Not just the land of Samba, Brazil is also the land of irony. After losing to the Netherlands in the quarterfinals, Dunga cashed in a one-way ticket to coaching retirement, and his replacement, Mano Menezes, immediately called Neymar to national duty in time for an August friendly against the US in East Rutherford, N.J. Twenty-nine minutes in, jackpot. Neymar headed an André Santos cross past Tim Howard for the first score in a 2-0 win.

To date, in all club matches and international appearances, Neymar has a nearly-Messi-like 0.60 goal average. Last year, he was awarded Goal of the Year for a slashing, juking, heel-pass give-and-go goal for Santos against rival Flamengo that left jaws dropped.

No wonder the Euro teams are tripping over each other to land him. There have been various moments when it seemed as if Real Madrid had a handshake deal in place pending the 2011 Club World Cup and/or Santos’ April 2012 centenary celebration, but Madrid appears to have shot itself in the foot with Neymar. Chelsea, the two Mans (U and City), Roma, and Juventus all have been reported as possible destinations, but recent stories suggest that Barcelona may have the inside track. And encomiums about Barça by Neymar and about Neymar by Barça icons (Lionel Messi, Dani Alves) have been surfacing in the press with suspicious regularity.

But there are things about the youngster that Pep Guardiola should be worried about. Not just Neymar’s bouts of dropsy, which may or may not be a justifiable form of self-defense given his smallish size (5’ 8½”, 141 lbs.). “Sometimes I do not want to fall,” he told the (London) Telegraph last May, “but it’s impossible not to. I’m a light player and so fast that sometimes it’s easy to lose balance.”

More worrisome is a history of fractured relationships with agents and coaches—including a very public beef with Santos coach, Dorival Junior. Not that Dorival stayed Santos coach for long. After all, if you run afoul of the golden calf, you have to expect to get the golden boot.

All of which will be a lot easier to look past if Neymar gets the Midas touch in London and helps brings home Brazil’s first ever soccer gold medal.

“Neymar,” by Bill Vourvoulias.

From “Un-American Football,” the July 26, 2012, issue of V as in Victor.

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